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Hill District, Penguins leaders eye Ohio for Civic ideas

| Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, 11:29 p.m.

Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood is becoming a popular destination for Pittsburghers involved in redeveloping the former Civic Arena site in the Lower Hill District.

Neighborhood leaders went there last month to see how officials are incorporating lower-income housing into a booming redevelopment effort. Hill leaders are pushing the Penguins for more affordable housing on the 28-acre arena site.

Penguins officials are going to Over-the-Rhine this week. The team holds development rights.

“Former Mayor Tom Murphy suggested that we look at Cincinnati as a good model for quality urban development using public-private partnerships,” said Penguins Chief Operating Officer Travis Williams, noting he will travel with team CEO David Morehouse and city and Allegheny County officials.

Marimba Milliones, executive director of the Hill Community Development Corp., said, “There are a considerable number of similarities between the Hill District and Over-the-Rhine.”

Over-the-Rhine is a predominantly black neighborhood that lies between Cincinnati's Central Business District and its medical and university district, just as the mostly black Hill District is between Downtown and Oakland. By the end of the 1990s, Over-the-Rhine became one of the nation's most economically distressed areas, with rampant unemployment, poverty, crime and blight, according to the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., known as 3CDC.

Cincinnati's city government and corporate leaders established 3CDC in 2003 to spearhead revitalization. The group invested more than $315 million in Over-the-Rhine redevelopment, with $53 million from the city and the rest from 3CDC loan funds, state and federal tax credits and private sources, the agency said.

One notable project is Mercer Commons, a $63 million mixed-use development featuring a mix of affordable and market-rate housing. St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar — hired by the Penguins to oversee residential development on the Civic Arena site — is a developer on the Mercer Commons project, which features 126 rental apartments that include 30 affordable units geared toward lower-income residents.

Affordable housing has been at the heart of debate between the Penguins and some neighborhood groups.

The Penguins intended to submit preliminary land development plans to the city during the second week of December, but postponed those plans because criticism was received during a community meeting in late November.

Residents want at least 30 percent of nearly 1,200 rental units planned to be for lower-income residents, while the team originally proposed 20 percent. Residents also questioned the team's definition of affordable, noting the most inexpensive units cost close to $1,000 a month, based on early estimates.

“We're continuing to have discussions privately with all the parties involved,” Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan said.

The team said it investigated financing options that could allow it to include more affordable housing in its larger, $500 million-plus redevelopment plans.

“We're cheerleaders for people who say there needs to be a certain percentage of affordable housing in any new development. It's the responsible thing to do. Thirty percent sounds great (for the Civic Arena site), and I hope they stick to it,” said Mary Burke Rivers, executive director of the nonprofit Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, who met with the delegation from the Hill last month.

“But it's a challenge all across the country. It's hard to make it a reality because the resources just aren't there. The numbers never seem to work, but when you're committed to it, you find a way,” Rivers said.

At the community meeting in November, McCormack Baron chief operating officer Vince Bennett said, “It's going to be a struggle just to cover 20 percent (affordable housing). But can 30 percent be achievable? Maybe.”

Hill leaders are considering a trip to the Arena District in Columbus, Ohio, a mixed-use development that sprang up around that city's new hockey arena and minor-league baseball stadium.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or

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